I’ve been blessed a large, amazing family. One of those amazing members is my dad’s youngest brother, Joe.
Joe’s had an interesting life with a lot of unique experiences from spending time hitch hiking around, to living in a yurt in the Oregon forest, to raising 3 children in a beautiful college town. I’ve learned a lot from him, especially after he was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, which is a fast-moving, deadly brain cancer. He’s in the process of writing a book called, Too Much Fun Dying to Stop Now and as we work on the project together, we’ve been discussing death, parenting, and processing grief. In his book, he writes about the experience of losing his wife, Becky, to cancer, and accepting his own cancer diagnosis. Joe is particularly amazing in that he’s been the one helping me through the process of him dying of cancer. When I start to find myself overwhelmed by my emotions, I look to him and his words for strength and comfort.
One of the things I’ve discussed with him a lot is dealing with emotions. Like a lot of toddlers, my boys occasionally fight over toys and my autistic son has some difficulties in accepting that his twin doesn’t always want to play the same game that he’s playing. When I see my boys upset over a toy or my family members upset over a cancer diagnosis, I tend to want to get rid of that emotion for my loved ones. However, as Joe has pointed to me, although we’ve been taught to see anger, sadness, grief and other such emotions as aberrations that ought to be removed, often that need to remove said emotion causes it to manifest in unhealthy ways.
Instead of fighting against these emotions, Joe suggests that we understand them instead. Anger, sadness, death… Joe says that rather than trying to beat them, we should accept them openly as part of the human condition. With the help of a loving parent or a loving friend close by, we learn to become attentive to these emotions and experiences. It is through this attentiveness that these emotions lose their control over us. When faced with a fierce wave, you can stay on the surface of it and struggle mightily against it, often with little success. Or you can dive right in and pass safely out the other side.
On his advice, I’ve started to talk about so-called ‘negative’ emotions with my boys. When one of them is gripped by a difficult emotion, I label it, discuss it, and help them navigate it with various tools in addition to my presence.
Not only has this been incredibly helpful for my 2 year old boys, who are starting to say, “I’m mad. Need some calm down time” instead of throwing a tantrum, but it’s also been incredibly helpful to me as Joe gets sicker as his cancer progresses. I’ve been letting my loved ones know that I’m upset and need my own calm down time. We encourage toddlers to say, “I’m sad. I need a hug,” but so rarely do we encourage adults to do the same, especially men. How much more freeing it is, though, to speak of our emotions and ask for what we need. To seek out comfort in appropriate places. As Joe said, “it is like learning how to ride a bike, falling down, then running back home to mom. Nothing wrong with that at all.” Sometimes you need that extra sense of safety as you work through difficult emotions and experiences. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for that from our loved ones.
In discussing death and grief with others, it is often tempting to offer platitudes or to try to cheer the other person up. Based on Joe’s example and what I’ve read in some excellent books on rearing children, I’ve found it to be more helpful to accept the other person’s emotions as is and to offer them comfort as they process these emotions. To not fight against their emotions, but to embrace them both.
Lately, I find myself upset and sad, especially when something reminds me of Joe. In discussing how he dealt with his grief following Becky’s passing, Joe says that he let it wash over him, even when it seemingly came out of the blue, as it sometimes did. He said, “If we allow the tears to flow, this kind of openness and vulnerability is so very freeing indeed.” Indeed, it is.